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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

State jobs agency claims it was 'target' of 'politicized' federal investigation

Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity is accusing the federal government of targeting it with a politically driven investigation, after the U.S. Department of Labor slammed the jobs agency for denying access to jobless benefits.

Perhaps building upon the IRS's targeting scandal, DEO is asking for Congressional hearings and an Inspector General investigation into “improper politicization at the United States Department of Labor.”

“DEO has concluded that the USDOL investigation appears to have relied on insufficient evidence, fell far below professional standards, and may have been politically motivated,” the state jobs agency said in a statement.

DEO is objecting to the findings of an “initial determination” by the Labor Department, which found that Florida had made it difficult for the disabled and those who struggle with English to access jobless benefits they were eligible for.

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature slashed jobless benefits and created new requirements for applicants, including an online-only application and a 45-question skills review. DOL initially approved of the changes, which eventually led to a sharp increase in the number of rejected applications.

Civil rights groups filed challenges with the federal government over the changes, and the first ruling came in April. DOL’s Civil Rights Center sided with the pro-worker groups, finding that DEO’s unemployment aid program discriminated against people who speak Spanish and Creole, as well as those who were blind or otherwise disabled.

DEO is now saying that the DOL findings were “flawed” and based politics rather than facts. In letters to Congress and the U.S. Inspector General’s Office, DEO general counsel Robert Sechen accuses DOL of collaborating with the group that filed the challenge (the Miami Workers Center). Sechen also accuses a key DOL official of admitting to having a political agenda, citing a biography that states the official had worked to “keep the evil overseers of the Bush administration from dismantling U.S. federal civil rights laws.”

DEO says the final product from DOL, which slammed the state agency for discrimination, reflected a predetermined outcome based on politicized bias.

It’s unclear if Congress or the U.S. Inspector General will take up the request for further investigations. The accusation of political “targeting” by the Internal Revenue Service has led to several Congressional hearings in recent weeks.

In the meantime, DEO could face sanctions from the federal government if it fails to adequately address any valid allegations of discrimination within its jobless benefits program. That could include the federal government discontinuing funding for jobless aid. Florida has borrowed more than $3.5 billion from the federal government to fund its jobless program during the recession. Thanks to deep cuts in benefits and a recovering economy, the state paid back the massive loan last month. Still millions of dollars in federal funding continues to flow through DEO for the unemployment aid program.

DEO director Jesse Panuccio is a lawyer who has challenged the federal government both as a private litigator and as Scott's general counsel. 

DEO says it has addressed some of the issues in the report, which knocked the agency for having long wait times on the phone, “hang-ups,” poorly trained customer service officials and a problematic website.

The labor groups also filed a separate, broader challenge against the changes, saying they create “unlawful barriers” to jobless aid for all applicants. That challenged, filed last May, remains pending.

[Last modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 4:07pm]

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